Sunday Dinner: Lentils and beans beef up meat-free chili

Eric Akis

Every once in a while, I like to make a nice pot of chili — enough so my wife and I can enjoy some now, with some left over to freeze and use on a day we don’t feel like cooking.

I most often make a meat-based chili, but this time I just didn’t have a desire for it, so I decided to build my chili around another source of protein: red lentils

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Beyond protein, those lentils provide folic acid, fibre, potassium and iron, and are low in calories, fat and cholesterol.

If you eat lentils with foods rich in vitamin C, such as bell peppers and tomatoes, ingredients used in my chili, your body will absorb its iron more efficiently.

Red lentils are also budget-friendly and easy to find, since they’re sold at every supermarket. Also, because they are a split style of lentil, they cook fairly quickly and you don’t need to presoak them, as you do some other pulses, such as dried beans. And when red lentils simmer, they expand and help to create a thick and hearty chili, almost looking like flecks of ground meat when cooked.

Two other pulses, white kidney beans and black beans, are also simmered in my chili, flavoured with a nice mix of spices, oregano and splashes of hot pepper sauce. In this case, the pulses were canned. I made that choice because, as with my red lentils, I could put them straight into the pot and get my chili cooking more quickly.

Using canned beans also gave me extra time to make savoury cornbread muffins to serve with it. For added flavour and colour, I mixed grated cheese, sliced green onion and diced red bell pepper into the muffins before baking them. The recipe yields 12 muffins, but any left over could be frozen once cooled, as with the chili. When needed, wrap muffins in foil and warm in a 350 F oven until thawed and warm in the middle, about 15 to 20 minutes.

Red Lentil and Bean Chili

Three types of nutritious pulses combine in this hearty chili that you can top, as desired, with such ingredients as avocado, cilantro, yogurt and grated cheese. You can serve the chili with cornbread muffins (see next recipe) or with tortilla chips, for dunking into it.

Preparation time: 25 minutes

Cooking time: About 40 minutes

Makes: About eight cups (six servings)

2 Tbsp olive oil

1 medium yellow or white onion, diced

1 medium green bell pepper, diced

1 medium jalapeño pepper, finely chopped

2 medium garlic cloves, minced

2 to 3 tsp ancho chili powder (see Note)

2 to 3 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp dried oregano

1 tsp smoked paprika

2 Tbsp tomato paste

1 (28 oz./798 mL) can diced tomatoes

2 1/2 cups vegetable stock, plus more if needed

3/4 cup dried red lentils, rinsed in cold water and drained well

1 Tbsp brown sugar

1 (14 oz/398 mL) can white kidney beans, drained, rinsed in cold water, and drained again

1 (14 oz/398 mL) can black beans, drained, rinsed in cold water, and drained again

• a few splashes hot pepper sauce, such as Tabasco, plus some for the table

• salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1 small to medium ripe avocado, peeled, pitted and cut into small cubes

• small cilantro leaves or sliced green onion, to taste

• plain yogurt or sour cream, to taste (optional)

• grated cheddar or Monterey jack cheese, to taste (optional)

Place the oil in a medium pot (mine was eight inches wide and five inches tall) set over medium to medium-high heat. When oil is hot, add the onion, bell pepper and jalapeño pepper and cook and stir four minutes. Now mix in the garlic, ancho chili powder, cumin, oregano, paprika and tomato paste and cook and stir one to two minutes more.

Add the diced tomatoes, 2 1/2 cups stock, lentils and brown sugar to the pot and bring chili to a gentle simmer (small bubbles should just break on the surface). Adjust the heat as needed to maintain that gentle simmer, then cook chili, uncovered, for 10 minutes.

Add the canned beans and hot pepper sauce to the pot. Return to a gentle simmer and cook chili 20 minutes more, or until lentils are plumped up and tender. As chili simmers, thin it with a bit more stock if you find it’s getting too thick.

When ready, taste chili and season with salt, as needed. Ladle chili into bowls and let diners top theirs, as desired, with avocado and cilantro (or green onion), and plain yogurt (or sour cream) and grated cheese, if using. Also, set your bottle of hot pepper sauce on the table for sprinkling on the chili, just in case you think it needs a bit more spicy heat.

Note: Ancho chili powder is sold in the bottled herb and spice aisle of most supermarkets.

If you can’t find it or don’t wish to use it, replace it with regular chili powder.

Cornbread Muffins with Cheese, Onion and Bell Pepper

These savoury muffins are easy to make and great to spread with butter and serve with chili and other dishes, such as soups and scrambled eggs.

Preparation time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: 18 to 20 minutes

Makes: 12 muffins

Vegetable oil spray

1 large egg

1 1/4 cups buttermilk

1/4 cup olive oil

1 cup cornmeal

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 cup sugar

1 Tbsp baking powder

1/2 tsp salt

• pinch ground cayenne pepper

1 cup grated cheddar or Monterey jack cheese

1/3 cup thinly sliced green onion

1/3 cup finely diced red bell pepper

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Beat the egg in a medium bowl, then mix in the buttermilk and oil.

Place the cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and cayenne in a second medium bowl and whisk to combine. Now stir in the cheese, green onion and bell pepper. Mix the wet ingredients into the dry until just combined.

Grease a 12-cup non-stick muffin tin with vegetable-oil spray. Spoon the batter into the prepared pan, filling each cup about three-quarters full.

Bake muffins for 18 to 20 minutes, or until a muffin springs back when gently touched in the centre. Set muffin pan on a rack and let muffins cool 15 to 20 minutes. Now carefully remove muffins from the pan and serve them warm or at room temperature.

Eric’s options: For plain cornbread muffins, simply omit the cheese, green onion and bell pepper from this recipe.

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